Crisis Management Lessons From Bridgegate

January 9, 2014

Crisis Management Lessons From Bridgegate

It is too early to assess whether the brewing scandal involving lane closures on the busiest bridge in the world will be a roadblock to Governor Chris Christie’s climb to the White House, but there are already important lessons to learn from this debacle for the governor, the political class and crisis experts. Here are a few:

Mocking generally works when issues are truly trivial, but it backfires when an individual in a position of responsibility tries to downplay, dismiss or distract attention from a serious problem. Christie miscalculated significantly when he initially responded to this crisis with humor clearly intended to leave the impression that the matter was not worth his or anyone else’s time. Strike one.

Crises typically reinforce the most negative stereotype surrounding an individual or company. Think about all the white collar scandals in recent years and the perceptions that the executives in the cross-hairs were acting out of greed. In Christie’s case, the act of political retribution conjures up images of the governor as bully – building on many familiar videos of the Christie chastising teachers, critics and even media. The risk for the governor is that, in the future, voters, analysts and media may view his directness through a negative lens as further acts of bullying, instead of as the refreshing forthrightness they have come to admire from the governor. Years from now political pros also may ask what they were thinking when they launched a nuclear attack on a political adversary while enjoying a 40-plus point lead in the polls. Strike two.

High profile crises can be a tipping point for well-known figures with the potential to dismantle years of carefully cultivated and hard-earned images. One of Governor Christie’s greatest assets is that he is seen as a can-do leader who works equally well with Republicans and Democrats – a stark contrast to the president and Congress in politically gridlocked Washington. Now, however, the petty and needless act of political retribution in closing lanes on the GW Bridge, along with the racist and gloating emails from his staff, could wipe away in a matter of weeks an image Christie built over a career. Tragically for Christie, the image of him walking with President Obama along the devastated beaches of N.J. after Superstorm Sandy, may be replaced by videos of the bumper-to-bumper traffic entering the GW Bridge, and stories of innocent children who were late for school, and a deceased 91 year old whose access to emergency care was delayed. Strike three. Americans know our leaders are not perfect, but, in times of crisis, we expect them to act with the highest degree of responsibility and professionalism. Governor Christie must recognize the significance of the test he now faces, take full responsibility and demand that the chips fall wherever the facts lead. Two years from now voters in New Hampshire and Iowa may not be talking about the traffic jam on the GW Bridge, but they will be assessing the character and reputations of the men and women on the ballot.

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